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On the Genealogy of Rivalries

What kind of rivalry are we going to have, and how will our first two humiliating losses determine the nature of that rivalry? You know what, screw that: why does rivalry have to feel this way? As with most things, Friedrich Nietzsche has some opinions about it.

How much reverence has a noble man for his enemies!—and such reverence is a bridge to love.—For he desires his enemy for himself, as his mark of distinction; he can endure no other enemy than one in whom there is nothing to despise and very much to honor! In contrast to this, picture "the enemy" as the man of ressentiment conceives him—and here precisely is his deed, his creation: he has conceived "the evil enemy," "the Evil One," and this in fact is his basic concept, from which he then evolves, as an afterthought and pendant, a "good one"—himself!

— Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals

I've never felt a rivalry like this. I don't mean I don't know of any, or I've never seen one: I mean I've never felt it. "Rivalry" even feels like an inadequate term for what is much more bilious and far less sportsmanlike. What it's like for the players, I'll never know. But for a fan, seeing a Harrison Red Bull supporter becomes like seeing a version of yourself who has made a horrible error and who persists in mocking you for not having made the same one yourself. It's like Freud's "narcissism of minor differences," in which the other who disturbs you most, pushes you deepest into fits of disgust, is the one who differs from you only very slightly—or in the case of a derby, only plays a few miles away. Harrison downplays the extent to which we are rivals, which is, of course, merely a tactic in pursuit of the very rivalry they disown. And in all probability the players on either team can't be bothered about who is based in New York and who in New Jersey, the foundation on which much of the banter is built. You sort of have to assume that, for them, it's all about the history on the pitch. But even that history is building, and fast. Pick your poison: Liverpool-Everton, Brazil-Uruguay, Catholic-Protestant; we're on our way.

This kind of rivalry is a feeling that is as hard to shake as it is hard to explain, as visceral as it is inexplicable. And it has all the arbitrary intensity of a moral system—though let's hope not quite as many atrocities will be committed in its name.

Nietzsche tells us (to reduce it) that moral systems arise from some act of definition by rejection: the good, the holy, the clean is always us; the bad, the evil, the dirty is always them. Assuming he's right, the reasons to be wary of this tendency are clear and numerous. Racism, religious persecution, homophobia—about every strike against the human race you can think of but Nicholas Cage, the explanation for whom continues to elude.

What's worse, and what I personally find so disturbing about The Genealogy of Morals, is that in Nietzsche's hands this type of moral self-definition is naturalized. Like the hunting instinct in the bird of prey, it's an act that's hard-wired into us on the level of species, and is thus very difficult to condemn as simply as we want to. At worst these instincts are with us still as "bad conscience," a kind of self-loathing in which these instincts, unable to unleash themselves in the wilderness, are turned against the self in the guise of a moral self-condemnation.

I say "at worst," because although the cultural and deep-psychological expressions of "bad conscience" may be inevitable, there are workarounds for the less subliminal expressions of these instincts. I'd hardly be the first to suggest either that sports are just a legitimization of the violence we'd otherwise condemn, or (what amounts to the same thing) that sports are an acceptable container for competition and violence that prevents them from spilling over into real life. But the spectator doesn't have any place in that schema: violence committed by a spectator is still just violence. And this is where rivalry comes in. Instead of acting as a container for violence, sporting spectatorship cordons off the kind of unthinking condemnation of an entire swath of people that, outside of an arena, is monstrous. It's catharsis for our baser instincts scaled up to encompass entire fan communities.

The baser instincts, though, also give rise to certain foundational aspects of culture—but containing rather than eliminating those instincts (which would anyway be impossible) allows us to hang on to the cultural self-definition we gain from concepts like "good" and "evil." Note the ending of this week's passage: inventing "the Evil One" is a route to inventing the "good one," which in context means inventing our conception of ourselves. This is hardly a cause for celebration in Nietzsche's view, but in a sporting or spectatorial context we can find room to reclaim what we want to.

For one, it's a way of building community; an arbitrary community, but we're in an age when pretty much every community is arbitrary. To put it slightly more optimistically, it's one way of finding a community in a city as big as New York, in which community is often lost because of sheer scale.

But rivalry, and supporting a club generally, also makes it uniquely justifiable to pick a side without thinking too hard about the consequences. Rivalry lets you say without complication, "This is good, that's bad, we're us and you're out in the cold, twerp." It exposes the arbitrariness of picking a side and revels in it, but it does so without allowing any harm to come of doing so. Outside of arena, uncontained, that's called nationalism and it's dangerous; but since you don't have to reckon with the draconian immigration laws or criminal foreign policy of a football club, saying "I'm with you no matter what" is a reasonable act. Sport spectatorship is unique in that it allows for uncomplicated partisanship regarding what happens on the field. And rivalry is just the ultimate expression of uncomplicated partisanship.

Return one more time to the passage. Note that the construction of the good/bad or good/evil binary depends on the relative positions of the two groups: the dominant group defines its opposites as "bad" or "lowly," the dominated group of ressentiment defines its opposite as "evil." City's been swatted this year, and the final meeting will, at best, only let us save face—they've taken two out of three. But we're in a unique position in relation to our own rivalry as a new team: the terms are being established over the next few seasons. What kind of shape is this eventually going to take? Are we going to be the "good one" to their "Evil One"? Or the "good" to their "bad"? Is this the start of our frustrating inability to overcome them, or their one moment in the sun before we come into our own and usurp the New York throne?

Remember, I'm a partisan, so I have my theories. I just hope we can think of our own equivalent of St. Totteringham's Day in time for the end of next season.


Every week, Ninety-Plus of Blue discusses one NYCFC match by way of one literary quotation. The goal each time is the same: to say something true about both and, hopefully, to understand both better as a result. In tracing NYCFC from its first kickoff, this blog is developing an (admittedly bizarre) hybrid genre that combines literary analysis with sports writing. Put another way, it's what happens when aesthetics meets aesthetic football.